Any casual observer reading recent news headlines could be forgiven for thinking that sport, as a whole, is in a pretty bad state at the moment.
Whether it’s the continued allegations of doping in athletics, further details in the tale of the FIFA corruption scandal or match-fixing in tennis, bad news presently seems to follow sport around.
So, how do the various sporting authorities address these issues? The answer is with great difficulty.
All they seem to be doing on the surface is ‘standing strong’ against the cheats and ‘rebuilding for the future’.
This is typically understated media talk but rest assured beneath that exterior there is a lengthy list of proactive, reactive and preventative measures being drawn up and acted upon.
Aside from dealing with negative issues, what positive proactive steps could be taken to improve sport as a whole and, moving forward, what could the authorities do to regain the sporting public’s confidence?
- Lifetime bans for dopers and corrupt players/officials
There is no other way to weed out the cheats – lifetime bans must be given out. This is a hugely radical concept – one that is also extremely difficult to see happening but also one that would prove popular amongst clean players and officials.
Take the recent meldonium tests. Athletes can hide behind the ‘health reasons’ (only if you’re diabetic), but the 120-odd positive tests for the drug amongst high-profile sporting figures such as Maria Sharapova and Abeba Aregawi prove that a doping culture remains the biggest challenge facing athletics.
Decisive action should be taken. No excuses for missed tests. No namby-pamby two-year or four-year bans. Take the cheats out of sport completely – for life.
The same should happen with corrupt officials in football, for instance. There should never be another Sepp Blatter. Could there be a future situation where the public can elect FIFA’s officials?
- More money and media coverage at youth level
Sporting bodies are always boasting about the amount of care and attention they put into grassroots. Extra funding, boosting club projects and providing young talent with competitive arenas are just some of the things governing bodies and sponsors are keen to display.
For example, FIFA have enjoyed good coverage in lesser footballing nations for their part in developing facilities, coaching standards and youth training.
In England, the Football Foundation (funded by The FA, Premier League and the Government) contributes £36m each year to grassroots sport. However, FA chairman Greg Dyke has said grassroots is in crisis and wants to spend £250m by 2020 to create football hubs in 30 cities and increase the number of 3G pitches in urban areas to 500.
That £250m amounts to £14m more per year than the Football Foundation already spends, but is it enough considering the new £5.1bn package paid by Sky and BT to show Premier League games between 2016-19?
Under-21 football receives good media coverage, so too does junior motor racing in a large spread of formulae thanks to outputs such as Motors TV, Autosport and ITV4.
Meanwhile, 2015 Rugby World Cup revenue will enable the RFU to spend over £1m on grassroots rugby and predicts that 750 more state secondary schools will be playing the sport by 2019.
Cricket clubs also received grants totalling £2.5m in 2015 thanks to the England and Wales Cricket Trust’s partnership with Waitrose, which benefitted 801 clubs and helped 70% of those to generate further fundraising proceeds via their improved facilities.
Given the large sums of money flying around different sports there still seems to be an opportunity to do more at grassroots – particularly with media coverage. Could we see a youth sport TV channel pop up some time soon?
- Equality for women’s sport
As far as equal opportunities for women in sport go, they are very hard to come by. Only in tennis is there parity in earning potential at Grand Slams – and even then men’s world number one Novak Djokovic recently, and controversially, suggested men deserved more than women.
Women’s football has received noticeably more media attention in recent years – a trend that was helped by England’s third-place finish at the World Cup last year.
There is also lots of focus on women’s cycling with the exploits of world road race champion Lizzy Armitstead being closely followed as she dominates the peloton this season.
However, on the track there is a sexism row unfolding at British Cycling after allegations by Jess Varnish that she was told to have a baby after being dropped from the Great Britain team.
Olympic gold medallists Victoria Pendleton and Nicole Cooke have since raised concerns about alleged sexism at British Cycling in the wake of Varnish’s comments.
Clearly, hard work needs to be done to overhaul existing cultures in media and within women’s sport itself.
- Live coverage cap for pay TV companies
Pay TV is a growing concern for sport consumers in the UK. No longer can Premier League, Champions League, cricket and MotoGP fans watch live coverage of those events due to Sky and BT’s monopoly of the live broadcasting rights.
The BBC, ITV and C4 are routinely happy with winning the rights to highlights packages which at least allows non-Pay TV viewers to watch shows like Match of the Day, Champions League extra and F1 highlights.
C4’s existing deal to show 10 live F1 races per season will finish in 2018, allowing Sky to gain exclusivity and further reducing the number of live sporting events on affordable platforms such as Freeview and YouView.
While Pay TV generates a fortune for sport – notably in English football with the £5.1bn Premier League deal – it is also preventing young people from watching and being inspired to take up a sport.
Despite BT’s free-to-air ‘Showcase’ channel featuring 12 live Champions league games this season, viewing figures have been poor. A peak audience of just 200,000 compared to ITV’s 4.4m for the play-off round and group stages.
F1 is suffering in this country too, with Sky’s coverage generally receiving just 10% of the viewership that the BBC did in 2015.
Sponsors are increasingly turning their backs on pay TV too, following concerns about the number of people watching adverts etc.
It is a difficult balancing act, though. Pay TV is a convenient way for sporting bodies to generate revenue, but perhaps people would be more likely to sign up if it was cheaper.
Why not test a coverage cap idea, where pay TV companies can only monopolise a given amount of live sport per season?
- Use of video technology in football
Video technology is prevalent in many sports, particularly rugby and cricket. F1 stewards also look at different camera angles to adjudicate on racing incidents.
Not all sports use it though. Football is the notable exception. With money spilling into football, why can’t a rapid system be developed to check penalty, offside and booking decisions? Would it really hurt the flow of play? Many fans think it doesn’t in rugby and cricket, so why would football be any different?
Even snooker and cycling use video technology, whether it be the World Championship or the Tour de France. It’s time for football to keep up with the 21st century.
- Pundit school for inept analysts
This slightly more light-hearted suggestion would put an end to the horror shows that we have to endure when watching sport. There would be no more Michael Owens stating the obvious, no more Martin Keowns mispronouncing players’ names. No more know-it-alls like Robbie Savage and Joey Barton who cast their opinions on Champions League football despite never having played in Europe’s elite club competition.
What sporting fans are looking for is to be enlightened on the mechanics of a match that are not obvious to the untrained eye. What are the sub-plots? What tactics are being used? Which player is having a blinder under the radar, and for what reasons?
Sky Sports have done more than most to address the dying art of punditry, recruiting Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. More must be done to create pundits that make the half-time analysis slots as enjoyable and informative as the game itself.
Perhaps a pundit school or an analyst academy is the solution?
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